Am reading Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs, which brings back disturbing memories of my years at Reed College, from which I graduated only a few years before Jobs attended. When Isaacson describes Steve’s food fetishes, I remember the students who chose to live on a macrobiotic diet my first year – 1963 – and became so ill, they ended up in hospitals with malnutrition.
My first year at Reed, I, too like Jobs, went barefoot as a way of shedding my former, clothing-constrained life to become more attuned to nature. It resulted in a plantars wart, which had to be burned out of my foot at least twice before it went dormant. I almost felt it throbbing again when reading about Job’s bare feet at Apple.
I remember Tim Leary coming to Reed, taking LSD on the stage at the Elliot Chapel, where we had lectures, with a glass of water, sitting like Gandhi with his legs crossed over each other, and repeating his mantra of “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” I walked out, and that year a friend of mine, after taking LSD, jumped out of a dorm window and died. Many years later, I helped Leary get a gig writing a column for a Japanese computer magazine, Eye-Com, when he was sick and broke and living in L.A.
My first and only job in tech was to head marketing for a Macintosh telecom software startup in Berkeley called Software Ventures in 1986. The company was the idea of William Randolph Hearst III and his parents put up the initial cash but then made him take over running the SF Examiner because they wanted him in the newspaper business. Having been a PC user (Multimate was the wordprocessor I used), at first I didn’t find the Macintosh intuitive, but I liked the spunkiness of the Mac community and was elected to the board of BMUG, because I knew how to bring in speakers for our weekly meetings on the UC Berkeley campus.
John Sculley was CEO of Apple then, and once after talking to him about our software at some event, I realized he didn’t know anything or even care about technology, which is what Isaacson confirms in this bio. Jean-Louis Gassee used to visit us frequently, and he was the first man I’d ever seen with a small earring – a diamond stud – in his ear. He was entertaining because he used French idioms that often made inadvertently great quotes in English, but to me he seemed more concerned about his image than about Apple. Isaacson confirms this impression.
In 1988, when the NeXT debuted, both my boss, the CEO of Software Ventures, and I wanted to meet Steve Jobs. The CEO just wanted to see what Jobs was like. I wanted a NeXT computer because I liked the way it looked and because I’d always wanted the OED but couldn’t afford it, and the NeXT included the OED. We contacted Jobs and said we’d like to port our telecom software to NeXT, and since Jobs needed such an app, he invited us over.
Jobs was dressed like a French fashion model – in some black designer suit, and his hair was cut in Beatles style. He didn’t make us wait, which is what we had heard he always did. Instead, he smiled and like Houdini, carried a black briefcase, which he opened with a flourish, as if we’d find cut-off body parts inside. Instead, there was a facsimile of a NeXT computer, and we gasped with delight as he gave us a mock presentation.
In exchange for agreeing to port our software to his platform, we asked him – and got – four NeXT computers, one part-time NeXT programmer, and a tour of the state-of-the-art NeXT factory in Fremont. It seemed as clean as an operating room, and reading Isaacson’s book, I now understand why.
A year later, we returned, this time to NeXT’s new headquarters in Redwood City. The outside of the building was white stone and glass, and it felt like entering a Zen monastery. Jobs kept us waiting, and when we went into the conference room, his bare feet were up on the table. His hair hadn’t been washed, his jeans were dirty, and he had a sneer of contempt on his face that I will never forget. He only looked at my boss, never at me, and I felt like a second in a shooting duel.
He screamed and cursed as if our software had destroyed the universe….at least his universe. Did we realize what a piece of shit we had produced? Reading Isaacson’s bio, I realize now he was in trouble with NeXT, because the computer didn’t really do anything. After a month or so of gracing my desk, all the NeXT could do was offer me the OED, the complete works of Shakespeare, and some Bach, plus some weird Unix code that made no sense to me.
Many years later, my former boyfriend Fred Davis and I held a Cybersalon – a monthly event at our home to discuss technology’s impact on some aspect of culture. We invited Alan Deutschman, who had just written an unauthorized biography of Jobs, and our topic that night was whether one had to be an asshole to be a great CEO. No one could think of a technology CEO who had placed nice and won in the marketplace, so at the end of the night, we agreed that assholes make successful high-tech leaders.
At Reed, we were trained to create beautiful and original contributions to the world based on our knowledge and understanding of the past. We were also asked to obey the school’s honor code, which was somewhat akin to Google’s original commandment: to take no action that would harm others. Jobs got the first part right but utterly failed in the second. The irony is that by capitalistic standards, he was a total success.